Dallas architect and new mom Erin Peavey entered the new year of 2019 bracing for what she feared would be withering postpartum depression.
Just months earlier — after surprising doctors and living for a decade with breast cancer — Peavey’s own mother had passed away during her pregnancy.
Peavey thought she had successfully shoved the tragedy onto a very high shelf and, plowing on with her round-the-clock design work, 36 hours after her mothers death, she led a series of user-group meetings for a new surgical tower at Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Fort Worth.
Then suddenly home with a newborn, the 36-year-old knew she had to deal with the grief of being a mother without having her own mom to lean on.
All she knew to do was to take those overwhelming emotions outside and look for a place to heal.
“Every morning I would get up and go for long walks with my baby attached to me,” Peavey recalled.
“I’d find places that connect people and cross paths with other moms and other kids. And I wouldn’t feel so alone and isolated.”
Peavey was experiencing a powerful real-life example of the philosophy that had guided her architectural philosophy since college: The importance of built spaces that are designed on the foundation of connectivity, social health and even healing.
That’s the same lens that this delightfully nerdy and can’t-do-small-talk architect brought to her 2021 assignment to transform the infamous Shingle Mountain site into a new park for the Floral Farms neighborhood in southeast Oak Cliff.
“I saw the importance of those connections and I wanted that for everybody,” she told me. “That’s how we know we’re a community — by seeing each other all the time.”
Dallas-based HKS architecture firm has made quite the name for itself with billion-dollar stadiums, massive health care campuses and swank luxury hotels. Less glitzy but more important is the pro bono work its architects do under its Citizen HKS brand — design work like the plan unveiled Thursday for the proposed Floral Farms park.
Talk about a community that needs healing. What happened in Floral Farms is a textbook example of social injustice, a case of a community’s zip code all but inviting a man-made disaster to take place there.
Shingle Mountain is finally gone, thanks in large part to the unstoppable Marsha Jackson, who fought back for years against the hundreds of tons of roof shingles being dumped virtually in her backyard.
But this is a community that’s still dealing with a slew of raw deals resulting from unjust zoning decisions.
Residents, who organized as Neighbors United/Vecinos Unidos, believe creating a neighborhood park where Shingle Mountain once stood is an important step toward transforming their community.
Peavey’s job, as the HKS design team’s leader, was to give physical form to the neighbors’ vision for what could eventually be a 6-acre park.
“I am a listener and a re-listener and a re-listener and a re-listener,” she told me. “It is their voice that needs to be at the table, not mine. Every step of the way, it needs to be them, not me.”
Key to the effort has been Jackson and neighborhood group co-chair Genaro Viniegra, the Inclusive Communities Project’s Jennifer Rangel and Evelyn Mayo, with Paul Quinn College’s Urban Research Initiative.
The 10-month design process involved community meeting after community meeting with drawing boards and photos for individual feedback. Each step along the way was conducted in both English and Spanish and input was sought from adults and children alike.
“This is a group of people who had their voices stifled for a really long time, and in order for them to really be heard it would take very special listening,” Peavey said.
From three very different options — and many more rounds of discussion — a final design emerged for the residents to assess.
“You could tell the community members were trying to be nice but we were like, ‘tell us what is the best, what do you like here and what don’t you?’” Peavey said.
The final resident-approved park design includes space for playscapes and splash pads, sports fields and equine therapy, a community garden and food trucks, and a yellow steel “ribbon of play” that runs through the space.
Most symbolic is the lush green hill that rises in one pocket of the space. This “mountain” of reflection will ensure that Dallas never forgets the environmental injustice it let occur in the midst of this neighborhood but also celebrates the promise of this reclaimed land.
The park’s entrance echoes the same shape, and on the path entering the space are the words, “Together we can move mountains.”
Peavey sees the project as reclaiming the space “into a place of community and healing — of having that hill where you can look out feeling like you are on top of that mountain.”
Now for a reality check: This park is a long way from any groundbreaking. Among the big “to dos” are zoning changes, remediation of the land and a lot of fund-raising.
But the design work is a huge step because now a solid design plan exists for where Neighbors United intends to take this site.
I know what Floral Farms wants for its future and now that I’ve gotten to know Peavey’s background and beliefs, this partnership increasingly feels to me more like grace than coincidence.
Peavey, who grew up in Austin and graduated from Texas A&M, describes herself as “that annoying child who was always crusading for the little guy.”
She first considered social work, but “I’m a giant piece of Velcro and will take on your emotions and make them mine,” she laughed. “So my sweet mom, who was also solidly blunt, was like, ‘Honey, please.’”
Instead, through architecture and design research, Peavey has done a different kind of social work: Opening the eyes of everyone at every table she’s a part of — including city planners, investors and architects — to the way physical surroundings shape emotional, mental, social and physical well being.
“That needs to be in the lens that informs everything we do, not seen as this add-on cost that is too expensive,” she said.
Her mother’s illness also reinforced Peavey’s commitment to create spaces that can soothe pain.
It was tough, Peavey acknowledged, to be a part of the HKS team designing Parkland Hospital’s new Moody Center for Breast Health as her mother, Katherine, became more gravely ill. “But it was also really beautiful and amazing because my mother could advise me from a potential patient’s perspective.”
Peavey admits that explaining the design quality of everyday places to promote social connection and provide an anecdote for toxic loneliness isn’t easily distilled into a sentence or two.
For those of us who don’t swim in architectural waters, perhaps the best way to describe what Peavey strives for is design that captures the essence of the welcoming front porch — the feature that sold her and her husband on the East Dallas home where they now live.
That’s what she wants to bring to Floral Farms — a place full of life, beauty and realness.
“If I deserve that, they deserve that,” she said. “This park is critically important as a reminder — and a symbol that Dallas cares.”